A Frank farewell

11th February 1915

Frank Crawshaw 1893-1915 RIP
We will remember him

Frank was killed today.

It’s hard to specify a time, but during the day the Germans shelled the British support lines and dugouts. Eight men were hit in separate incidents at 10.30am and 3pm. Two men died. One was Frank, the other was (Acting) Corporal Francis Alfred Jones from Cheshire. The shells were high explosive says the Dorsets’ diary. At least it would have been quick for one of them. The 15th Brigade’s diary lists 7 injured and only one killed so can we assume one died later of wounds? Jones is listed on the Menin Gate. Which usually means that his body was never found.

Frank was originally buried in a cemetery in Frenchman’s Farm. This cemetery was destroyed in later fighting. May we infer that Frank may have died in a dressing station, which Frenchman’s Farm was at some point. Frank now lies in Wulverghem-Lindenhoek Military Cemetery but his grave is only a marker, as far as I can make out, with six other graves that somehow survived the later destruction.

It’s easy to try to find reasons why and how it happened. But frankly, if you’ll excuse the pun, the odds were against him. Frank was one of a dwindling number of original members of the 1st Bn Dorsets that set out from Victoria barracks on August 14th 1914. I haven’t researched the casualties in terms of ordinary soliders but Gleichen makes a note that, of the 127 officers who came out with him to France with the 15th Brigade, all that remained were:

Norfolks—Done and Bruce (both ill in hospital from strenuous overwork), Megaw (killed later), Paterson.

Dorsets—Ransome, Partridge.

Bedfords—Griffith (trustiest of C.O.’s, who had been under heavier fire than almost any one in the Brigade, yet never touched), Allason (thrice wounded), Gledstanes (killed later).

Cheshires—Frost (killed later)

I’ve come to Belgium today to pay my respects to these men as well as Frank, my great great uncle. But I also want to see and walk the landscape he fought in. I’ve been to Ypres a couple of times (in 2005 and 2010) but I didn’t know anything about Frank’s life, or the history of the Dorsetshire Regiment. I think I know a little bit more now.

As you drive inland from the channel ports the pancake-flat landscape suddenly buckles up to the south as you approach the turning for Poperinge on the A25. It was at that moment that I finally understood why the Ypres Salient was so important to the British. Beyond this point there was no cover to the north, which meant no breaks in the landscape, behind which to hide a battery of guns or reserve troops. Jump forward 25-odd years to 1940 and you see what happens when the Germans break through.

And yet the landscape also made the salient incredibly dangerous. A salient is inherently lethal in itself but Ypres was special as it has hills which, in early 1915, the Germans held. They could fire down on the enemy as well as conceal guns behind those hills. Forty nine other men were killed in and around Ypres on the 11th February 1915.  The British had no real cover from which to hide their men and so they suffered casualties like waves pick up and turn over shells on a beach. The attritional damage inflicted on the British during the early part of 1915 took a long time for them to recover from.

Wulvergem, as it’s now known, lies in a depression in gently undulating land dominated by Mont Kemmel in the North and Messines in the South. I see now that the Germans commanded every vantage point, invisible over the crest of a slope, and they were able to pour fire into easily visible targets, including the barns and farms that litter the landscape even today.

It’s pretty hard to discern between a scruffy barn an one that’s had a couple of shells through it. The trees are all pollarded here, raggedy scarecrows in the pale winter light. Frank was fighting in a landscape he’d recognise today. It’s only later, when the villages and towns were destroyed by the bigger siege guns, that the landscape shifted from tattered to torn apart.

Tomorrow I will walk across this landscape but this is the last daily post I’ll be making. Thanks for coming on this journey with me. I’m off for a cold tea.

Lest we forget.

Jonathan Elliman
Ypres 2015

Lamp batteries


30th January 1915

The Dorsets were relieved by the Cheshires. If the Dorsets were already in billets then there’s no explanation why they were relieved or what from exactly. A and D Company joined the battalion later at Dranouter so perhaps it was they who were relieved.

The 5th Division’s artillery busied itself by experimenting with lamp signalling. Royal Flying Corps aeroplanes would reveal the position of hidden enemy batteries using lamps back to Allied artillery. It was not very successful; there being too many variables for it to become an exact science. Wireless would prove to be the better solution, but at the moment the receivers were just too big to be of any real use.

The guns of  7th Siege Battery registered three direct hits on Messines Church tower. So much for just the Germans targeting civilian buildings.


Blazin’ squad

19th December 1914

It was another squally and rainy day. Conditions in the trenches had become fairly desperate. Trenches regularly collapsed and men stood up to their waists in liquid mud. Gleichen writes that it was from a trench like this that “a Dorset man was literally almost drowned and drawn forth with great difficulty”.

The Dorsets diary contains the first mention of a patrol by the Dorsets. German trenches are found to be strongly held. I’m not sure what they were expecting.

At 7pm Battalion headquarters moved quarter of a mile south of original HQ on the Wulverghem-Messines road.

The war diary and the CWGC report two Dorset men killed. 1 man was wounded. The dead men were Privates Joseph Hooper and James Purbrick.

The battalion took part in “demonstrations’ against the enemy throughout the day, which essentially meant every free man blasting away like guns at a pheasant shoot. Why did they do this? It seems to have been to create a diversionary effect on the enemy – presumably these were continuing orders from the attack on 15th December. A kind of brigade-wide “cover me!”.

The video clip above is trailer for the excellent 1983 film, “The Shooting Party“. It’s like Downton Abbey but with a decent script, plot and actors.

A salient point


18th December 1914

I completely missed the Dorsets’ diary entry for the 17th. I’ve edited the post now and included the map here. Apologies for the oversight. 15th Brigade had relieved the 14th Brigade. The Dorsets had moved back to Wulverghem and relieved the Easy Surreys taking over Sector B.

This was an area to the immediate south on the Wulverghem-Messines Road pushing out eastwards out from the rest of the front line towards La Petit Douve Farm. This kind of exposed position with the enemy firing at them from two sides down a slope presumably made things very hot for the inhabitants. I will draw the trench map I have when I get a moment.

At 3am in the morning the Dorsets “thickened” their firing line. Men from the Bedfords and Norfolks had been moved into their reserve trenches. The diary doesn’t say whether the Dorsets moved men into the firing line because there was no room left in the reserves or if action was expected to take place in their sector.

After this shenanigans the day was described as quiet. One man was killed and 11 were wounded. For once the CWGC agrees with the Dorsets. The one man they have listed as having died that day was John Hill. He was 32.


Mabel and her John Willie

5th November 1914

Letter to Miss M Crawshaw, 29 Strathleven – date 11 – 14 envelope franked 5 No 14 (censor no 137 still at it)

Dear Till

Many thanks for your welcome and interesting letter which I received on the 31st. I am pleased to hear that you are getting on alright and still mucking in. What’s the idea of asking me to write to your John Willie, for I don’t know him, you get him to send me out some chocolates, do you know Till that chocolate is as good as anything out here, and every one is after it.

You say what do I want for Xmas wait and see how things go for its a long way off yet, and goodness knows what will happen. Yes mate I could do with some Tooth Powder, for you should see them now they are proper gone, no I never got the toothbrush thats the only thing I never received, and I can account for that, one of our fellows took the Companies mail in the firing line and he got killed, and of course they got lost.

It is Sunday and its a fine day too and no cold tea roll on a long time. Glad to hear Tom is safe remember me to him, lets have his address and I will drop him a few lines, for thats what you look forward to more than anything else, is a letter.

Till I have forgot to tell you before, and that is that all my clothes are at Jessies home, two lots that basket and a box, I was going to send them home but we never had time wasn’t allowed out and we had to get rid of them at once. I had just bought another suit a navy blue a lovely one it cost 55/- and I only put it on twice, bowler shirts ties, socks collars watch Bank Book with 5/- in it, your hair brushes, overcoat, in fact every think. Yes I hear from Jess she sent me out a parcel not long ago, and her brother dropped me a few lines, as well, yes poor Jessies getting on alright, just as the War started I was getting on alright, at her home for I used to go round for dinner and Tea on Sundays, and supper in the week, only the old lady didn’t drink she hates the sight of it.

Well Till I am getting on alright and still in the pink, you say the war can’t last much longer don’t you believe it, for it will last longer than people think worse luck. I am still waiting to hear from your (Friend) and I have wrote to your impersonator, I mean your Johnnie. Glad to hear that Matties leg is better and that he is working, you still mucking in at Stewarts glad to hear that Ciss got my letter, I have dropped her a card since.

Remember me to all at home and I hope you are still mucking in, what time are you getting to bed,  now that the pubs close at 10 o’clock. Now I think this is all the news at present trusting this finds you all in the best of health and hope to hear from you soon.

P.S. Don’t forget the tooth powder Glad Eye

I remain

your loving Brother


Frank wrote this letter on the 1st November, the previous Sunday, but it didn’t get posted until the 5th November. I am not sure he is in the position to be writing letters at the moment. He most probably wrote it in the morning as I would have thought he would have mentioned the bus journey if he had written it in the evening.

Mabel has presumably asked Frank to write to her boyfriend. Frank taunts her and indignantly asks for payment in chocolate. Later on in the letter he reveals that he has already written to her “John Willie”. Frank might pull a leg or two but he’s very kind at heart.

John Willie is a phrase that later became associated with John Thomas. I don’t need to explain the meaning of that, but I don’t think he’s being that crude here. In fact, there were a few songs from the time with the name John Willie in. I stumbled upon this thread of enquiry looking through the Routledge Dictionary of Slang. There was “Fetch John Willie” from 1910 and “Have you seen my John Willie” from 1914. I cannot find the lyrics to these songs but what I did find was this song by George Formby Senior. Yes, that one’s dad. He was a popular Music Hall entertainer and he played a character called “John Willie” who was “the archetypal gormless Lancashire lad … hen-pecked, accident-prone, but muddling through” (according to historian Jeffrey Richards).

Here is the 1908 song in sterophonic technicolor:

This “John Willie” is most probably the first mention of my Great Grandfather, Carl Robert Debnam. He was also in the army, a Gunner in the 41st Company, Royal Garrison Artillery. He had returned to the UK in July, after a tour of duty in Sierra Leone. He was yet to be posted to war. In fact he didn’t make it to France until late the following year. And, yes, he didn’t use his first name; everyone called him Robert (or Bob).

I’ll return to the letter tomorrow.

Meanwhile the Dorsets were still nervous about being next to the French, who were regularly announcing their intention to attack Messines. Further up the line they had regained a toehold in Wytschaete. In fact the 11th Brigade War Diary records that Colonel Butler reported the French were in front of the Dorsets’ trenches during the early morning of the 5th. Throughout the day different reports come in about the French preparing to attack.

Most worrying was the 8:15pm report that the Dorsets’ line had been broken, prompting Butler to send reinforcements. The Germans had attacked the Dorsets very suddenly at 7pm. The Dorsets diary reports that C Company was ordered to counter attack. After this point no indication is given of whether they regained the trench at all. It just reports that rifle fire slackened and they settled down to an eerie but quiet Guy Fawkes night shrouded in thick fog.

Elsewhere all the signs of impending trench warfare continued. The Germans were reported throwing up barricades in front of their positions opposite the Rifle Brigade who were also stationed in Ploegsteert Wood.